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Some Thoughts on Building an Anarchist Movement

Published in Social Anarchism #26, 1998


There seems to be something lacking in most of what has been written in the symposium: a strategy for building a mass movement which could actually threaten the capitalist and state systems and replace them with something better. Many of the writers have expressed an antipathy towards anarcho-syndicalism. This is nothing new. Even at the height of the anarcho-syndicalist movement at the turn of the century, there was always a strong individualist anarchist opposition towards anarcho-syndicalism due to a rejection of organization. There was also an anarcho-communist rejection of anarcho-syndicalism due to belief that the satisfaction of immediate demands (wage increases, better conditions, shorter hours, etc.) would pacify the workers instead of bringing about a revolutionary insurrection. Yet the fact remains that anarcho-syndicalism came the closest of all forms of anarchism to actually achieving its aims. So while it is true that present day anarcho-syndicalists have been unable to rebuild after suffering massive defeats at the hands of the fascists, communists, and welfare state unionists, no current form of anarchism has been able to come close to what the anarcho-syndicalists achieved in the past.

If modern day anarchists want to have any chance of success, they must learn the lessons of anarcho-syndicalism, even if they want to go beyond labor struggles and act outside the workplace. One of the first things they must get over is anti-organizationalism. The classical anarchists were not opposed to organization, with the exception of the extreme individualists. Rather classical anarchists discovered libertarian organizational forms and principles: communes, assemblies, federations, local autonomy, self-management, delegation, and instant recall. Anarcho-syndicalists were able to apply these forms and principles to large organizations comprising millions of members and remain relatively free of the bureaucracy which plagued the Marxists and social democrats. Modern day anarchists must rediscover this type of organization even if they want to build something other than unions.

Another lesson of anarcho-syndicalism is that anarchism must be made relevant to ordinary people, not just a small "counter-culture" of artists and intellectuals. Anarcho-syndicalists took part in the struggles of workers against their employers because that was a form of resistance which was already taking place. It was not necessary to invent "issues" which could fit into an anarchist agenda, but instead workers could be shown that direct action and libertarian organization were a more effective means of winning their demands, while keeping open the possibility of more revolutionary changes in the future. If union struggles and workplace issues are no longer an effective social sector for anarchist activists, then some other sector needs to be found as a replacement. There must be constant interaction between anarchists and non-anarchists on matters of daily concern, not just propaganda and proselytizing about how all problems will be solved "after the revolution."

As an anarcho-syndicalist, I do not agree with those anarchists who feel that the possibilities of revolutionary labor struggles have been exhausted. Poland, South Africa, and South Korea are all countries in which labor movements have played a significant role in toppling governments in the past two decades, even though they have not been successful at replacing the capitalist system. Had there been a strong anarcho-syndicalist movements in these countries, I feel the outcomes would have been different. It may be that anarcho-syndicalism is more immediately relevant to the industrializing countries of the Third World, than in the countries of North America and Europe where bureaucratic pro-capitalist unions are well established and receive government support. The mature capitalist countries have enough surplus wealth to buy off the labor movement when they are inclined and forced to do so. Things are less flexible in the developing countries, and revolutionary labor movements may be easier to sustain. Opportunities might develop in the old line capitalist countries, however, in the wake of dismantling of the welfare state. At any rate, economic issues remain important to society, and worker self-management is the only feasible anarchist alternative to capitalism. Rather than dismissing anarcho-syndicalists at every opportunity, the rest of the anarchist movement should at least recognize us as useful allies, even if we will continue to have disagreements.

So the question becomes how can anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists work together? The first thing would be by improving information gathering and circulation. The anarchist press is abysmal. News about significant developments is sporadic and usually heavily biased. Some way needs to be found to support investigative journalism, perhaps by pooling funds to send anarchist journalists to where things are happening. For example, I still do not believe we have an adequate understanding of the Zapatistas in Mexico. While we can all admire their courage and audacity, do we really know that they share the libertarian ideals of the original followers of Zapata? We have seen guerilla movements in the past, like Castro or the Sandinistas turn into authoritarian statists once they have ousted the old regime. Going to stage-managed events is not going to tell us much. Someone needs to be able to dig into what is going on, and keep a healthy dose of skepticism on hand. This requires investigative journalism. I do not want to pick on the Zapatistas, because there are other examples I could mention. Another glaring hole in information is about what is going on in Russia. How do workers survive when they do not get paid for months? Is there an underground anarchist economy, with worker-run production and exchange of goods, or is there just a capitalist black market? Unfortunately we don't have anyone in Russia asking these questions.

Another way anarchists of all stripes could work together would be in the translation of important literature. Very little of anarchist literature has been translated into English. Right now English has become the international language of commerce, much like Swahili used to be in Africa. Once anarchist literature becomes available in English, it can be made accessible to movements in Asia and Africa. It is an old cliche that within every person, there is a book waiting to be written. The cliche should be changed to say that within every bi-lingual anarchist, there is a classic anarchist work waiting to be translated and made available to the rest of the movement. We have only scratched the surface of the anarchist literature available in French and Spanish. I remember once reading a book on Japanese anarchism in which the author claimed that the Japanese anarchists had developed a unique anarchist ideology in the 1930s. It was ironic that I had read many of the same viewpoints (for which the author gave sole credit to the Japanese) expressed by Spanish anarchists writing at the same time. Apparently the author, although fluent in Japanese, was unfamiliar with Spanish anarchist works. I am not saying that some "national" anarchist movements have not developed some unique insights, but we won't know unless their works become accessible to everyone.

Perhaps these are projects which could be taken up by an anarchist federation. However, having been part of attempts at building anarchist organizations in the past (SRAF, ACF, AAA, etc.), I am somewhat gun-shy. The major stumbling block to creating anarchist federations is getting agreement on ideology and policy. Either things are reduced to the least common denominator to include as many anarchists as possible, only to postpone the arguments until a later date, or ideological hair-splitting dominates the organizational process to the point that the new group just represents a tiny sect. Considering the wide divergence of opinion in our movement, I would recommend that organization should be limited to what is necessary to accomplish a specific task. Perhaps over time, when people get a chance to know each other better and develop a sense of trust, an anarchist federation might be possible. Collaborating on building some sort of anarchist journalistic association, and a publishing house for international works, might be a start.

 

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